Rethinking mainstream media

August 9, 2020

Clinging to tradition and convention has helped many media houses leap towards their own graves

To say that the country’s local news media industry is in trouble would be an understatement. A cursory look at the industry’s report card will reveal crumbling financial health and a consistent decline in readership, coupled with fast evaporating levels of interest.

The internet changed things. For the news media industry, this change has been for the worse. Clinging to tradition and convention has helped many media houses leap towards their graves. The only thing one can say for sure is that change is needed – change is inevitable.

Kamal Siddiqi, director of the Centre for Excellence in Journalism (CEJ), agrees that the media is struggling to stay relevant. “In a country like Pakistan it is becoming irrelevant due to three main factors which are interlinked. The audience is shifting because of both viewing preferences and censorship. As the audience is shifting, revenue has become a bigger challenge,” he says.

The competition comes from digital outlets, which are overtaking traditional media because of their accessibility.

Raza Rumi, founder of Nayadaur Media, says that the industry is facing several challenges which digital outlets may not always worry about. “In Pakistan’s context, legacy or traditional media faces many constraints and limitations due to censorship. So far, our experience in the digital realm is that it is a space where regulation is still being considered and many models are coming up – but at the same time, they report on issues and themes which the mainstream media does not. There’s a bigger avenue here for stories getting out,” he explains.

Babar Nizami, executive editor of Profit, and COO of Pakistan Today, says that holding onto tradition has proven to be the industry’s undoing.

“The old or traditional model that newspapers and organisations use comes with a lot of waste. We used to do this as well. When we started Pakistan Today, given our background with Nawai Waqt, it only made sense for us to use the old model,” he says.

Nizami admits that doing things the old way was a mistake. “There was duplication in a lot of our processes with more than one person doing the same job. We have done away with all that,” he says. Pakistan Today’s Profit was brought back from the dead. Having gone out of publication once, few could have predicted that it would make a comeback and be sustainable.

“We have changed the way we produce news. We realised that we needed to think of the readers and how we could get them the best stories in the most efficient manner,” Nizami says. For regular news, the paper has decided to rely mostly on newswires or news agencies.

“You have to understand where you need to send your reporters. What news is important? There is no point in reproducing the same stories as other papers.”

The main difference between the past and the present is the number of sources that people rely on for information. Back in the day, the newspaper that came to one’s home was the source of information.

“All newspapers tried to make sure that they covered every single story because for their readers they were the only source. This is no longer the case. Even if we miss a story we don’t mind because there are 200 other people covering the same thing,” Nizami asserts.

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to do a smaller quantity of news, but it has to be good news,” he says.

Raza Rumi echoes the sentiment and notes that media organisations no longer need the same kind of heavy capital infrastructure or investment as before. “More and more readers and consumers are online. There’s no need for big machinery, printing presses, grand offices and buildings. These costs can be minimised because the nature of journalism is changing very rapidly,” he says.

A shift in operations and business models is needed. “There should be more emphasis on training and technology. Media houses have to invest in their human resource as well as in their equipment. Also, there should be a change in thinking. We cannot sustain ourselves on breaking news only. We have to move ahead,” says Kamal Siddiqi.

Pakistan’s news media industry needs an overhaul not only for its own sustainability and stability, but also to retain its objectivity. Stories of publishers and broadcasters toeing an artificial narrative are nothing new to the industry.

“There are many external actorstoday. Publishers and broadcasters continue to juggle between what the audience wants and what the advertiser or the government wants. Sustainability comes from strength. This is not possible in the present-day scenario where the economics of running a media house is very artificial,” says Siddiqi. “We cannot expect sustainability if there are more than 30 news channels competing for revenue and ratings,” he adds.

Rumi believes that the pressures cannot be entirely avoided. “Media organisations in Pakistan are traditionally dependent on advertising, and in particular advertising revenues from the government. They need to look for alternative models like digital subscriptions or paywalls to diversify their sources of income.”

“The problem of pressure will still remain even if they have no ads from the government. The government has many levers to pressure media houses. We need to move towards a model where the readers finance the outlet. And journalists need to stand united in the face of threat or censorship because this is the most problematic part of the industry. Ads are just one element of the big picture,” he adds.

Smaller or independent outlets need to go through more of a smaller subscription base that is public funded, because that is the most sustainable way. Advertising revenues are declining and problematic, despite this we cannot discount their role – and that’s a reality.

Rumi believes that digital outlets are ahead of traditional ones because of their dissemination speed. “They are far quicker. You get news and information in real time. The accessibility and immediacy of information is completely different than waiting for a paper to arrive. You can consume content anywhere, anytime,” he says.

While some are of the view that going digital is the solution to all of the industry’s woes, Siddiqi isn’t so sure.

“In a country like Pakistan, there is a large number of people who are illiterate. It has to be a blended model. Also, different platforms are capable of catering to different audiences,” he notes.

The reality is that traditional processes have not worked for media houses for many years now. The local industry has never looked at journalism as a business – and a business it is, whether one likes it or not. Change is needed, and change will come, whether the industry is ready for it or not.

The writer is a journalist and researcher based in Lahore. She tweets at @luavut

Rethinking mainstream media in Pakistan